The wispy, luminescent tentacles - hundreds of them - dangled from the ice nearly 900 feet below the surface of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Scientists with the Antarctic Geological Drilling Program's ANDRILL Coulman High project were there to study ocean currents, not sea life.
The wispy, luminescent tentacles — hundreds of them — dangled from the ice nearly 900 feet below the surface of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.
Scientists with the Antarctic Geological Drilling Program’s ANDRILL Coulman High project were there to study ocean currents, not sea life. But there it was, captured by a camera on a remote-control submersible three years ago.
Thousands of miles away, Meg Daly, an Ohio State University professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology, got a call from Frank Rack,
ANDRILL project director and expedition leader.
He wanted to know what in the world his team had found.
“They sent me these pictures and said, ‘Do you know what it is?’ ” Daly said. “I said, ‘No, I didn’t know this was possible.’ ”
They were sea anemones. In the ice. Alive.
Daly is one of a few scientists in the world who specialize in sea anemone biodiversity. In two decades, she has discovered 20 or so species.
But never one that made its home deep below an ice field.
Edwardsiella andrillae became the only known marine animal capable of living this way, Daly said.
Rack, a geoscientist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, had returned to his McMurdo Station base camp when a colleague called and told him that when the submersible was sent into the water, the ice “looked kind of funny.”
When the team turned the submersible upside-down to examine the underside of the ice, “That’s when they saw all the tentacles,” he said.
“They were shocked ... completely surprised, and (they) immediately recognized this was a new discovery,” Rack said. “It was just like you scored a touchdown. People were jumping up and down."
The team shipped Daly about 20 samples culled from the ice shelf. She dissected the anemones and studied them under a microscope, developing theories about their biology and life history.
“The means by which these animals burrow into the ice shelf is unclear, as are the physiological mechanisms that enable them to live in ice,” Daly wrote in the December issue of the journal PLOS ONE.
Sea anemones have been found living on the bones of dead whales, the rugged matrix of a coral skeleton and near hydrothermal vents on the sea floor.
“The most exciting discoveries are in interesting places,” she said.
But ice? At the bottom of the world?
“If I took anemones and put them in my freezer, they would die,” Daly said. “I assume they have some sort of chemical antifreeze that prevents them from freezing.”
The anemones, simple invertebrates, remain an enigma, one that Daly and her colleagues will continue to mine for answers, including whether plankton, the anemone’s primary diet, is available in the ice shelf.
Other organisms cope with physiological challenges by using their liver, kidneys, blood and brain, Daly said.
With anemones, “You’ve got none of that ... they must be (surviving) at a cellular level and in ways that predate, evolutionarily, these more-complex systems.
“I just find that really exciting.”
Others do, too.
“We often think everything is known about Earth,” said Timothy Howard, director of science at the New York Natural Heritage Program in Albany.
He said the new anemone “emphasizes the importance of how much more there is to learn.”
Researchers are planning a return expedition to the ice shelf as early as next year, Rack said.
NASA is helping to finance a new robotic submersible because Antarctic discoveries might help scientists search for life one day on Europa, Jupiter’s ice-covered moon.
Daly said she’d love to visit Antarctica. And the ANDRILL team would welcome her.
“We’d like to get her involved in the on-ice stuff,” Rack said. “The ideal situation would be to get live organisms and track the food supply.
“You want to have somebody looking at the microbiology and looking at the anemones up close."